How to Use the DJI Mavic Pro and Cine Lenses to Capture Remote Native Alaska
Filmmaker Ciara Lacy's 'We Are Still Here,' traveling from Doha to Alaska, tackles modern Native identity through a woman whose background is shared by no one else in the world.
Filmmaker Ciara Lacy was working at a break-neck pace on a television show when she first received an email from an Al Jazeera journalist in Doha, Qatar. It was Amira Abujbara. With her father from Qatar (the country with the richest per capita in the world) and her mother from Iliamna, Alaska (a remote subsistence salmon culture), Abujbara knew her story needed the right person to tell it.
“I really hoped that I could work with a filmmaker who just 'got it,'” Abijbara told No Film School. Luckily, Lacy did. As a native Hawaiian filmmaker with a multihyphenated background herself, it was a project that felt almost too good to be true. “A note from a fellow native woman with a project that spoke to so many things I believed in,” said Lacy to No Film School, “you just have to trust your gut on who you collaborate with!”
After descending upon Iliamna in the midst of the annual Salmon run and into Doha during Ramadan, the resulting collaboration about the universal convergence of identities and places can now be streamed for free throughout November, which is Native American Heritage Month. Take a look and read our interview below.
No Film School: What was your strategy for the film, in terms of capturing Amira interacting in these places with family and friends and beyond, on camera?
Ciara Lacy: It all started with the team at Al Jazeera giving us the freedom to tell Amira’s story in the way that felt the most honest and organic. For me, this was absolutely refreshing as we could step outside the conventions often expected when working with some distributors in the U.S.
Next, I spoke to a few friends, including fellow native filmmakers Christina King and Adam Piron, because how Amira’s community was depicted was critical. We talked about how to create agency for our subjects, allowing scenes to breathe with the goal of creating fuller depictions of people, rather than distilling them down into cookie cutter depictions. We also avoided interviews with academics, instead opting for conversations with tribal members who could talk comfortably about local issues. This was something Amira brought to the table with the intent to show community members as experts on life there, rather than tapping outsiders.
It was also important to address the fact that many of the people Amira met with on camera were people she’s known her whole life and who weren’t used to having outside attention. Too large of a crew or too fancy of a camera set-up would be distracting, and any sort of formal interview set-up would seem unnatural.
The goal then would be to have her sit how she’d naturally sit, interact how she’d naturally do so. The flip side of interviewing people she knew was that it often meant asking questions that she wouldn’t normally ask to provide clarity for the audience. This took a little getting used to, but Amira was quick to learn and really great to work with on camera.
Amira Abujbara: Ciara and her team do an incredible job of making people feel comfortable, both on and off camera. Ciara didn’t rush anything; if we were running a little late, we were running a little late. If I wanted a moment to touch base with a family member before we started filming with them, she gave me the space to do so. For my first time on camera, I was really grateful for the relaxed atmosphere she set up, an atmosphere that I think translated on screen. This was all calculated on her part; for the crew, it helped us all avoid stress and technical mistakes, and for the film, it coaxed out the best from everyone involved.
Lacy: We shot during the annual salmon run to capture this incredible community tradition, which also meant that we arrived at the busiest time of the year. Everyone was fishing to collect their protein for the next 12 months. I’m the kind of filmmaker that loves a good schedule, especially on a job like this, but it was impossible to create a plan when our subjects were focused on fishing for survival.
We came to people and interacted with them doing whatever they were doing, fishing, canning, smoking, cutting, etc. The goal was to fit into their lives, rather than force them into our schedule. Anything else wouldn’t have worked or felt right in a subsistence community.
"Tom Visser was always ready with a solution for things like tapping into the helicopter headsets or game to ride on a super muddy ATV with our DP Chapin sitting on the hood shooting."
NFS: Tell us about production. What gear did you use to match this kind of shooting style?
Lacy: My inclination is to use drone work sparingly. I love to keep the camera focused more closely on our subjects, but it seemed undeniable that we needed a way to capture the vast landscape of Alaska. Our DP, Chapin Hall, used a DJI Mavic Pro drone to do this, which was particularly useful in a landscape with very few overlooks nearby. The drone also allowed us another way to shoot over the lake and river and look down to see the salmon swimming.
Perhaps most importantly, Amira spoke so fondly of the tundra that I knew we needed to film it, but it had to be done right. The goal was to give it a graphic sensibility, taking what would feel familiar and giving it a new look, and the drone was a really great tool for doing just this.
For anyone out there curious about the details of our camera set-up, DP Chapin Hall offers this: “We used the Sony PXW-FS7M2 as our main camera with a Metabones EF to Sony e mount adapter to use Canon CN-E 15.5-47mm and 30-105mm Cine zoom lenses as well as the native e mount Sony E PZ 18-110mm f/4 G OSS zoom lens. The wide Canon zoom is an amazing lens that looks great and gives you a solid range of focal lengths to work at for up close and personal one camera verité. The long Canon zoom was mostly used for landscapes, b-roll, and nature shots and matches perfectly to the wide zoom. The Sony lens has a decent middle of the road range for documentary filming but is the one we used the least. It has a good look though not as cinematic or pretty as the Canons. But it is significantly lighter weight and has Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) which was particularly useful for shooting on the small airplane to Iliamna, in the helicopter at the Pebble mine, riding 4 wheeler ATVs (Hondas) and in the truck on some of the bumpy dirt roads in the area.”
We also did nearly all of post-production remotely. Our editor, Nathan Caswell, cut from Vermont while I was in Hawaii. To make this work, we shared matching hard drives, trading project files for watch-downs and notes. I kept a detailed transcript of every cut so that I could be very specific in terms of notes on dialogue, often resurrecting lines from previous cuts. Kayla Briët, our composer, also worked remotely from California. In fact, I’ve still never met Nathan or Kayla in person, but I can tell you that they are absolute superstars to work with.
Then came our color grade, graphics, and sound mix, which all happened in-house at Al Jazeera in Doha. Up until this project, I’ve always been on hand to supervise this kind of work personally, but our budget wouldn’t allow for this. The graphics and sound mix were easy enough to relay notes on remotely but color was much more complicated. To communicate the kind of color work we wanted done, Chapin prepped LUTs for each scene that we sent to our colorist to work with.
For any notes on color work, we provided detailed text explanations plus screen grabs that Chapin colored as reference. This process ended up working really well, and, in fact, we used the LUTs on all our rough cut outputs to get everyone used to the colors we were hoping for, rather than just watching cuts in log. I’ll likely continue this process of dropping LUTs on rough cuts as a way to think about the color on a project more deeply, giving us more time to refine and tweak this.
NFS: You had the chance to film in some remote places with their own unique challenges. Any hairy production experiences?
Lacy: You just never know when a bear will show up! I kept bear spray with us at all times but never really thought we’d need it. That is, until, one day where we were shooting in a very open, public space, and I heard our sound operator Tom shout, “Bear!” I turned my head to see a juvenile bear tumbling right toward us! We all calmly waited as the bear dashed into the bushes, but our DP Chapin Hall was so focused that he never saw it! Shooting in Alaska during the summer meant being ready for nature: bears, giant mosquitos, unexpected rain, and, of course, never-ending sun. Trying to get a shot at sunset meant staying up until 1AM!
We were also shooting on ATVs, helicopters, truck beds, small planes, and boats. Not only did I make sure we had the right insurance in place, but we had to make sure that we were safe and that we had the right equipment on hand. Thankfully, our sound operator Tom Visser was always ready with a solution for things like tapping into the helicopter headsets or game to ride on a super muddy ATV with our DP Chapin sitting on the hood shooting. The only thing I wish we had brought were walkie-talkies, and I know that they’re on the list for the next big adventure shoot.
Production in Qatar took place during Ramadan, so we built our schedule around call to prayer and fasting needs. The heat and humidity in Doha in June can be intense, reaching about 118 degree Fahrenheit in the day, and so I was very mindful when we shot in the desert (at dusk) to make sure that we had lots of water and food available for after sunset. This kind of weather was also tough on our equipment, so we made sure to take breaks and keep an airconditioned truck nearby in case the camera overheated.
Abujbara: Another thing about working remotely is if something goes awry, your nearest backup equipment is a plane flight away. When our drone accidentally hit a tree and nearly fell into a raging river, we were a little nervous until we retrieved it unharmed!
NFS: One aspect of this film which I thought was very interesting was about the feeling of being not exactly from one place or another. In today’s modern world of global families, what can you both say about this effect, and how can (or should) filmmakers tackle this duality?
Lacy: One thing Amira and I both share is that we are modern mixes in terms of race and ethnicity. Amira is the incredibly rare combination of Qatari-Athabascan; I’m native Hawaiian, Chinese and Caucasian. Being multi-cultural can give you an incredible world to tap into but it also leaves you wondering where you really belong. I think the answer, in terms of where you fit in, is always personal and unique to an individual and is often a lifelong exploration. This is life; let it be messy and weird and beautiful. I can say that my indigenous connection has always felt the most meaningful of all my identities, because of how few of us there are left in this world. Somehow this rarity has always drawn me to protect and value this part of my heritage, no matter where I am, and I think this draw is true to many indigenous people, including Amira. It doesn’t matter where you might live full-time; your ancestral home will always hold a special place in your heart.